Sacred Soil

A Dry Weary Land without Water
February 17, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

Deuteronomy 26:1–11
Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16
Romans 10:8b–13
Luke 4:1–13

I believe I have two categories of wilderness in my mind. The first being the images that come to mind if you ask me about wilderness in church. This wilderness is always arid. Dry. Really, about as alive as the moon, or some hostile planet on Star Trek. There’s always a strange beast over the ridge in this wilderness. Typically, it’s the country I imagine Jesus wandering, as the devil pokes and tricks him in these 40 days from our text for today.

But, if you ask me about wilderness when I’m outside these walls, when I’m eating dinner or playing with my daughter—well, wilderness is the mountains of Washington state, thick with evergreens and cold mountain streams. It is a place far from any human convenience, far from safety, this is sure, but still a place of calm. A place where I am centered and at peace. A place where, at least for me, even the sight of a bear on the horizon, brings no real sense of threat, because I know how to be, how to rest into the beauty. (Now, a cougar, well, that’s a different story.)

I’m actually not sure what kind of wilderness this was for Jesus. Perhaps being the son of God wins you a few perks in the wilderness department…

But I think for many of us when we encounter the wilderness of our lives, we are too often thrust into the hostile environment of a foreign planet, galaxies away from our comfort and our center. This was certainly true of the Israelites, as they wandered their own wilderness for 40 years. They longed for nourishment, for the sense that God was with them, to know God’s desire for them—and their ache for this knowledge brought them to a place that was arid and desolate. A dry weary land without water.

It has been suggested to me that when we see wilderness in the Bible, we might do well to think of this space, this time, as a school, as an instructional period. A place where God teaches, hoping that the people will learn. The Israelites were in school for 40 years, Jesus was an advanced student, and took just 40 days…

That’s why we have this text from Deuteronomy today, this text that implores us, “Remember: a wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” and the saving grace of God is recounted, the lessons learned from that wilderness time.

This is a text to be recited often. To be remembered, not just as a good story, but as part of the very fiber of our being. For lest we forget, and lose our patience with others who also wander in the wilderness. For lest we forget, what our God so earnestly tried to teach us in that wilderness time.

And I think that it’s true that Jesus and the Israelites both learned similar things in their wilderness time…
hoarding manna breads worms, and it does no good to turn stone to bread. Because our God provides.
Worshiping idols is a bad idea, golden calf, or the devil. Both are temptations place our own fear and death at the center of our lives.
And finally, God does not need our tests. Don’t go counting on angels to catch you, or whine for meat when you have manna. God is revealed in God’s own way, and our little tests just aren’t helpful.

I know many of you have experienced real times of wilderness in your own life. Some of you live there now. These are real times when God seems removed and cold. Real times when the learning is difficult, and the lesson unclear. Some days the wilderness is lush and green, though civilization is a ways off. Some days this wilderness is a place of centering, getting priorities straight. Yet, other days, too many other days, this wilderness a place so unknown and frightening, it seems there are cougar on every ridge.

But there’s another thing about wilderness. I think it’s actually the thing that makes “wilderness school” possible. The most important lesson of wilderness school. And it’s a promise. It is the promise that the Holy Spirit is there with us. Always. Even when we are numb to its presence. The Holy Spirit enters into those days and years in the desert, walking along side us. This is a sure promise, the promise that our God will not forsake us.

This is why, I love the tradition of remembering—this ancient tradition of reciting the wilderness stories. We do this every year at the beginning of Lent. We do this because it is tempting, so tempting, to forget that promise. To only remember the devil tempting us with food we cannot eat, with power that is not ours to have, with the desire to prove god exists… though such proof would never really satisfy. It is tempting to remember these stories, and our own stories, in terms of the annoyance and anger, in terms of the frustration and fear. In terms of hurt and sadness. To remember them as if we experience them alone.

But, to remember it this way, to hold the wilderness in this way is to forget, to forget the Spirit that accompanies us in our journey, whether we are aware or not.

When I was a kid I would talk to God as I walked home. For a while I got into these things I called “iffers.” In a sense, these walks were wilderness for me, and I longed to have some real sense that God walked with me. So, I would ask God to prove it. I’d say things like, “If there’s a ripe blackberry on this bush, then I know there will be chocolate chip cookies at home.” They were always benign, but always testing, putting God up for something. Sometimes they came true, though usually only when I’d given God an easy test, like “if the sun is out, then my brother will be playing in the yard.” But even then, such iffers never really increased my faith in God. They were just a game I played, trying to poke.

I couldn’t really appreciate how present God was then—my conversation partner. The one who made the blackberries ripen, who brought the warm sun, the one who brought the occasional friend to walk along side. The one who made cookies delightful.

But now, as I remember that wilderness school, I am reminded that the Spirit walked with me in that time to reveal God’s presence in the midst of wilderness. That for all my fear, I was never alone. Never.

And I think this is what we have in our texts today, the remembrance that a wandering Aramean was our ancestor, and that the Lord heard our voice and our affliction, and brought us out of Egypt with a might arm. We remember that our God took on flesh and stood up to the same demons that tempt to drag us down daily. We have the remembrance, the teaching, that our God will never forsake us.

So it is my prayer, that you, in whatever wilderness you may find yourself—a wilderness that is lush with the green of life and hope, or the wilderness that scarcely supports life—it is my prayer that as you travel this wilderness that you may know God guiding your feet as you move through. That you may know God in the midst of your prayers and your wandering. And that at some point, when the time comes to remember this wilderness, that it will become clear how God was with you all the way. Never forsaking you. Never.


February 13, 2013, 7:00 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Joel 2:1–2, 12–17
Psalm 51:1–17
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

This night we begin a strange season of the church year. We move from the exulted light of Epiphany, a season where we celebrate that overpowering awe of our God revealed even in the smallest moments. This after we have celebrated this Christ, the human one, coming to us as a child at Christmas.

This night we move from the Light, to dirt. To simple and ordinary and ubiquitous dirt. Ash really. Dry dirt, dirt without nutrients. Dust, fragile to the whims of wind, by its very nature, dirty. Unclean. We move this night from celebrating the light of the world revealed in our midst, to recognizing that we are all dust. Fragile and unclean. All mortal, and subject to the powers of destruction.

It is a strange season. Strange that we choose it. Strange that we gather this night and willingly bring ourselves forward to be reminded that we are human. That we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Yet I believe there is some brilliance in our strangeness. Christ did not come and declare: I came so that you might be normal, and blend in. No, rather he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. But the thing about life, the thing about abundance, is that it is not always simple, it is not always easy.

Life, in its fullness by definition means the fullness of human experience. The fullness of hope, and the fullness of devastation. The fullness of light, and the depth of disappointment and frustration and pain.

Now to be sure, God does not will us to experience pain. I believe our God wills and desires life. But the reality is that pain exists and pain happens in the midst of our seeking life. The path to fullness of life always includes the cross.

Nelson Mandela desired life for the people of South Africa, so he endured 27 years of prison, the pain of isolation, so that he might speak truth to the powers of destruction. Snatched up by the police as he participated in a protest, Mandela knew that the apartheid government had the power, and even the will to take his life. Darkness surrounded him. Yet he knew that this was the same darkness that surrounded his people. They were all fragile, fragile as dust, which the government wished to blow away.

Desmond Tutu writes that while in prison, Mandela allowed the suffering to ennoble him, and found himself “able to be gentle and compassionate towards others.” This was a gift of his faith. A gift of the scriptures he had memorized the hymns that had burrowed into his heart. The gift that allowed him the capacity to experience the abundance of human depravity and yet walk out of that prison, convinced that God desires life. That hope will yet be born. That the ashes of our existence yet hold fertile ground.

He walked out of that prison and led his people toward Easter. Toward possibility. Even knowing the full truth of our human frailty.

Now lest you begin to say to yourself, well, this is all well and good, but I am no Nelson Mandela, may I ask, who are you to suggest that you are not? Who are you to say that God cannot work through you, through your own dust and dirt? Who are you to say that you are powerless to the ways of death and destruction?

The same God that lives in Nelson Mandela dwells in you. And while that may seem far fetching, let me assure you, I have seen this.

I have seen this God alive in you, rising up from the ashes of disappointment, of frustration, of anger, and despair. I have heard you declare: these people need safe shelter. These children need a good education. These home bound deserve to know they are loved. I have heard you declare that no one should go hungry. No one should fear the night. No one should fear for their lives at the hands of another. But not only have I heard you say these things, but I have seen you take action to move toward life. Life for yourself and others. Witnessing fully to the dirt and ash of our existence, you have claimed your faith, and believed that life might still blossom here.

In 1980 we lived 150 miles away from Mount Saint Helens. One morning in May, my mother woke up with a start at the sound of a loud explosion. She rushed to the living room, afraid to see the havoc my brother and I were creating. We blissfully looked up at her, the sweet young kids that we were…

Little did she, or any of us know, that the mountain had exploded. That the entire north face of that perfect little peak was now rocketed into the sky, raining down ash for miles and miles.

The devastation was immense. The land which was once thick with trees and vegetation, animals and rivers, was now barren. Stripped of all life. Interestingly, the forest department set aside most of this area as a preserve. They did nothing in this area, but let nature take its course. No replanting, no effort to rebuild. They just left it alone and watched.

This pile of ash sat for a long time. Nothing much grows in ash. But soon came the dandelions, and other things we might imagine as weeds. They’re known as nitrogen fixers, their presence adds nutrients to the soil. Soon other weeds blew in or were carried by birds, and the ground began to heal. Lakes and rivers began to reform. Trees took root. It is a stunning geography, once merely ash, now host to new life. And apparently some of the healthiest frog populations on the planet.

It is apparent to me, that no amount of ash is too great for our God. No depth of human brokenness too much for hope and healing. No place that can bear to stand apart from the courage to stand on our faith and feel the presence of God yearning for life.

And so this is why we do this strange thing tonight. This is why we mark ourselves with ash and oil. Why we enter into this season where we get intimate with our dusty selves. Because we know that we are but dust. The dust that holds the seeds of new life. The hope of the very world.


On Prayer and Other Ways to Make Folks Squirm
February 10, 2013, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons


Exodus 34:29–35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2
Luke 9:28–3

So, Pastors may not have super powers, but I’ve quickly learned we have this incredible way to get utter silence in a room: ask someone to pray. Immediately, a hush falls over the room as lips are sealed. All eyes fall to the floor, lest a flicker of eye contact may be perceived as willingness. In the deafening silence you can hear the hurried thoughts… “not me, not me, not me… please, God, someone else…” Though, there are some who say to themselves, “I thought we hired you to do that for us pastor…” Ummm… no.

Truth is prayer, for many of us, is a rather daunting subject. I know that this isn’t universally true—some of you are tremendously wise in the art of prayer, devoted to conversation with God in ways that inspire. But, I would argue you are the outliers. Most of us, if we’re honest, are baffled by prayer. Uncomfortable. Uneasy. We’d rather suffer in silence, hanging on indefinitely, until the pastor caves and does her professional duty.

There are many definitions for prayer. Writer Anne Lamott suggests the essential aspects of prayer are the cries Help, Thanks, and Wow. I like that. I think of prayer as a conversation, a conversation where we bring our deepest needs, joys, and gratitude to God, in a spirit of openness and listening. And not just our needs, joys, and gratitude, but the world’s.

And in the midst of this conversation, in the course of prayer, something happens. It is as if this need, this joy, this gratitude gets transfigured in the very presence of God.

I suppose I should explain this. As transfiguration is not a word we generally toss about. Indeed, I was astounded when auto-correct knew how to deal with it.

In our lesson this week, Jesus and a few of the disciples have gone up the mountain to pray. This is mere days after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, quite to Peter’s own surprise. And while they are praying, Jesus’ face changes and his clothes become a dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear– and Peter, befuddled, wants to build a few booths, to hold all of this. But in the midst of this awkward request, the presence of God surrounds Peter, like a cloud, and explains to him, that Jesus is God’s son, making it clear that he should listen to Jesus. Stop trying to build booths. Stop trying to stand in Jesus’ way.

We call this the transfiguration. And it all takes place in the midst of prayer. Interestingly, on the face of it, nothing truly changes in this moment. Jesus has always been God’s son, the chosen. Peter has always been a bit too earnest. But on that mountain top, as they pray, God’s presence becomes known. The clarity of God revealed in Christ, shines on them. The surrounding presence of the Spirit overshadows them as a cloud. In those moments they bring all that they are, their need, joy, and gratitude, and experience them in the presence of God. And they are transfigured.

And then they come down from the mountain. And they move on to Jerusalem. They move forward, toward the cross.

Now, it’s clear from scripture that Jesus get’s it, and that this transfiguring moment made sense to him, and perhaps provided him with the lasting clarity needed to make that journey to Jerusalem. But the disciples—not so much. Indeed, as they get ever nearer to the cross, they seem to get more and more confused. Who are we, why are we doing this? Why do you think you have to die Jesus? They don’t really get that until the transfiguring moment of the Holy Spirit, later, at Pentecost. Well after the resurrection… and even then they needed to be constantly in prayer, constantly seeking the presence of God… because the truth is this is hard work.

I recently heard someone argue that the prayer is the hardest spiritual discipline. When I first heard this, I scoffed a bit. Under my breath I asked, now what’s hard about “now I lay me down to sleep…” or “oh, the Lord is good to me…”? But then she went on to say, it is the hardest because prayer asks us to bring our deepest needs to the presence of God, and in order to do that, we need to know what those needs are. We need to be in touch with our brokenness. To invite God’s presence into that which breaks our hearts, into the place we hide our shame, into the place we lock up our pettiness… We must invite God into those places and listen, allow ourselves to be transfigured. It seems obvious to me why we resist this. We don’t want to go to those places ourselves, much less invite God there.

And then it’s one thing to presume we will pray quietly with our God, but then to do this in the presence of others? No wonder the word “prayer” stuns so many of us into silence.

After Moses had his mountain top experience, his face too was bright, shining with the glory of God… It was too much for the Israelites. They asked him to put a veil over his face. That must have been awkward… The presence of God was too much, and so they leaned on Moses to be an intermediary. To do the praying for them. To bear the presence of God. To hide God’s glory from their eyes.

But, in Jesus, we have this gift, and this challenge. The challenge to take the veil away. To stand in the presence of God, freed to see the glory of God, the power of God surrounding us as a cloud. To see God present in the midst of our need, our joy, our gratitude. To invite the Spirit to move through us. It is a powerful thing. Daunting.

Truth is, God is there in our midst whether we pray or not. God is persistent that way. It is not up to us. When Jesus’ face changed and his clothes dazzled, the disciples were asleep. Snoring away. The presence of God did not depend on their noticing. God’s love does not depend on our getting it, and yet, our God desires us so much, longs for this conversation, aches for us to bring our needs, joys, and gratitude, such that our God keeps coming to us again and again… notice… notice… wake up… God cries out, “I am here.”

To be honest, these days, prayer is my hardest spiritual discipline, though I used to be better at it.

I first learned to pray as a young kid, probably 6 or 7, as I walked to and from school. It was a long walk, and I was frankly afraid. These days we wouldn’t let a young kid walk so far, but then, this was normal. I learned to talk to God along the way, noticing my fear, noticing the blooming flowers, noticing the rain, the water sloshing in my boot. I brought all these things to God, the joy of Spring, gratitude for my rain coat, and certainly my fear. I learned to talk to God, and let that fear transfigure, to gain clarity, to reveal my little first grade heartbreaks and fears. To know that I never walked alone.

I suspect that many of our kids also know how to do this. It’s sort of innate. They know how to pray in ways we grown ups have forgotten. They know how to carry these things to God, their lives a constant conversation with the divine.

So I wonder, as we enter into this congregational meeting and this Lenten season, I wonder can we set aside this time to deepen our commitment to prayer? To be as children, constantly in conversation with God. I propose that we set this time, this season, to hold each other in prayer, in holy conversation with God, bringing our needs, joys, and gratitude, opening ourselves to the transfiguring power of our God, to the clarity of the Holy Spirit, to the love of God, which surrounds us always.

To bring ourselves to God, ever attentive to how our God may transfigure us, attentive to how God has been present all along.